Tag: Marvel (page 4 of 7)

Movie Review: The Wolverine

You would think that a prospect like The Wolverine would not be considered risky. Wolverine is, after all, a well-established character in the Marvel universe, a member of so many teams that he risks overexposure. Yet it is that exposure that threatened this project from the outset. X-Men: The Last Stand is considered by many to be a failure, and Wolverine’s first solo film, X-Men: Origins: Wolverine not only suffered from colon cancer but from a solid concept taken horribly off the rails by incompetent writers. I think it’s safe to say that I, and many other X-fans, approached The Wolverine with trepidation… and breathed a large, collective sigh of relief when it didn’t suck.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox

Logan is wandering the earth following the events of X-Men: The Last Stand, haunted by memories and visions of the woman he loved that is now dead. His past does catch up to him, but not how he expects. A young Japanese woman taps him to return with her to Tokyo. A dying media magnate lives there, a man saved by Logan from the devastation of Nagasaki during World War II. The mogul, Yashida, offers Logan a gift: mortality. Before Logan can make up his mind properly, he is caught up in the machinations of Yashida’s son Shingen, the plight of Yashida’s granddaughter Mariko, and before he knows it, his healing powers have been stolen and he’s on the run from the Yakuza. He’s never been this vulnerable… or this dangerous.

Even at his weakest, Wolverine is a guy you don’t want to mess with, and Hugh Jackman, for his part, has definitely still “got it” as far as Logan is concerned. He doesn’t so much walk as stalk from place to place. Even at his most civilized, there is something bestial about him, an animal quality that Jackman conveys perfectly. He’s quick with sarcasm and deadpan lines that are delivered with ace timing, and his fight scenes look visceral and brutal. From the stunt work to the facial expressions to his furious cries, I cannot see any other actor bringing Logan to life the way Jackman does, and it’s a huge part of The Wolverine‘s overall success.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox
If you run, he’s just gonna chase you.

Wolverine is familiar, though. To American audiences, the Canadian berserker anti-hero is a staple of comic book fantasy. Japan, on the other hand, is a world barely scratched by most American media. Thankfully, at no point does the setting feel caricaturized, satirized, or downplayed. Indeed, from Tokyo to the distant Yashida castle, Japan feels almost alien in its culture, customs, and populace. It’s subtle and understated, rather than shoved at the screen as if to say “Look how weird this place is!” and this tasteful representation of another culture is another plus in the movie’s favor. So much could have gone wrong in bringing Japan to this screen in this way, but the filmmakers nailed it.

This juxtaposition of the savage and familiar Wolverine with the civilized and alien Japan is a chemical mixture that explodes with character, potential, and wonder. Through the lens of Logan’s experiences, we see all sorts of things in new ways, from the character himself to the world he inhabits. That world feels dangerous, again, as well as lived-in. This was a sense conveyed in the original Wolverine comic mini-series by legendary writer Chris Claremont, and it is here as well. While the film doesn’t short the audience in terms of action, the story points and character moments are so good that it doesn’t feel action-heavy. It balances very well and strikes all the right chords from start to finish.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox
He cleans up nice.

The Wolverine does have some flaws, in that the story is light in terms of intellectual investment. It’s not as complex as it might seem, and while the reveal at the end does color the events differently, the execution felt like more like a shell game or common wool-over-the-eyes trick than any sort of filmmaking magic. There’s also the fact that, rated PG-13 as it is, Wolverine’s fights are relatively bloodless, which is surprising considering how he goes to town on people with his claws. Still, there’s reportedly an unrated Blu-ray in the works, and you better believe I’ll be buying it.

Stuff I Liked: The fights are well done for the most part (see below). The final showdown is pretty interesting. Viper’s an interesting character. I like that Logan still doesn’t like to fly. The cameos of Famke Janssen were a nice touch. It feels like the X-Men films, including this one, are drawing closer and closer to the Marvel universe seen in The Avengers, and that’s a good thing.
Stuff I Didn’t Like: I’m not a fan of bone claws. There’s some shakey-cam in a few of the fights. The ‘big mystery’ feels like a bit of a let-down at the end, more like information was being deliberately withheld from the audience to create false suspense.
Stuff I Loved: Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. The Yashida cast and Yukio. The portrayal of Japanese culture. The fact that character moments felt just as interesting and involving as any of the fights. STAY THROUGH THE CREDITS – there’s a scene at the end that’s well worth the price of admission.

Bottom Line: This is the movie X-fans have been waiting for. The Wolverine delivers on every possible level without going completely over the top. A few minor quibbles hold it back from being entirely excellent, but it’s a far, far cry from what we had before. I’m even more excited now for Days of Future Past than I was before, thanks to The Wolverine.

Characters vs. Icons

Courtesy Marvel Studios

There’s another Marvel movie due out before the end of the summer. I’m cautiously optimistic about The Wolverine. Many (some might say all) of Logan’s most interesting stories come from his time in Japan, a time that has not happened in the films until now. I can understand why some might be trepidatious given the abyssmal misfire that was X-Men: Origins – Wolverine. But I keep coming back to Marvel’s track record, and the overall good quality of their recent films, and the more I see of the new film, the more I think they’re keeping with the mentality of better titles such as The Avengers and Iron Man 3. The key, I think, is the focus on characters, rather than events.

I’ve said in the past that Marvel’s heroes are characters, while DC’s heroes are icons. Other examples of the difference exist, but this one comes to mind most easily. Icons are mythological creatures, as much as gorgons and pegasi and kraken are, fulfilling their roles in epic tales and illustrating ideals to whatever audience happens to be handy. The tradition of using such constructs as a vehicle to move a story from beginning to middle to end is ancient and, for the most part, respectable, even if it is a bit simplistic at times.

It’s entirely possible to make your tale with icons. I’ve watched the Justice League animated series in both of its incarnations, and they were enjoyable, for the most part. But even as I watched Batman being generally awesome, Superman act upstanding and unstoppable, and applauded the valiant efforts to characterize and flesh out so-called second stringers like Hawkgirl and Green Arrow, I was bothered in that I was never really surprised by any character turns or plot points. It always felt like the characters were reacting to the plots involved and moving forward at the pace of the storyline rather than taking much time to be their own people. While a good story can still be told in this way, I find a lot more investment, enjoyment, and fulfillment comes from a tale that studies its characters rather than its outline.

Courtesy the WB. Or CW. I don't even know.

Take the television show Supernatural. The original plan was to create a “monster of the week” series involving all sorts of creatures born from folklore, myth, legend, and nightmares. But the creators quickly realized they had a much better resource for storytelling in the characters of Sam and Dean Winchester. Between the natural chemistry and charisma of the leads, the depth of the issues in the characters’ psyches and histories, and their connections to the world in which they operate, many more interesting developments have occurred over the course of eight seasons that might have been possible with the otherwise simplistic original intent of the series. Creatures like ghosts, vampires, and demons are, after all, iconic. Breaking them free of their iconic or stereotypical natures can be difficult. Even so, I doubt that the show would still be going if it focused on the iconic creatures and not the interesting, flawed, fascinating, hysterical, and very human characters at the center of it.

Do you prefer characters, or icons? Can a story function well with both? What examples do you reach for of either? Or both?

Let’s Discuss The Mandarin

Courtesy Empire Magazine

It should go without saying that the following contains SERIOUS SPOILERS for Iron Man 3. Fairly be ye warned. I’ll put it under the appropriate tags anyway, but I thought I’d remind you.

I’ll also remind you that I’m something of a Johnny-come-lately when it comes to my status as a fan of Iron Man, which may color my perceptions somewhat. Still with me? Then read on.

In the lead-up to Iron Man 3, it was revealed that Sir Ben Kingsley would be billed as The Mandarin, who is perhaps Iron Man’s most iconic foe. A holdover from the days of Cold War paranoia of everything communist, the Mandarin was the personification of Western fears of Chinese aggression – cunning, ruthless, steeped in Chinese iconography, and possessing powers of an alien nature. Detractors of the character have pointed out that, for the most part, the Mandarin’s something of a racist caricature, but with the casting of Kingsley, these detractors were silenced under the torrent of fanboy excitement at this classic character brought to life in a modern telling of Tony Stark’s ongoing story.

And then they saw the movie…

Spoiler

…and the Mandarin they were promised turns out to be a red herring.

Aldrich Killian, Guy Pearce’s mad genius Extremis creator, used the Mandarin as a proxy face for the “bombings” caused by his experimental soldiers going haywire. He created the character of the Mandarin as an amalgamation of the 21st century fears of terrorism and anarchy, found a washed-up stage actor to play him, and began a media blitz to deflect any possible attention that might come his way. It is, upon reflection, an ingenious plan.

It is also perhaps the most divisive thing to be done in a comic book movie to date.

Comic book fans can be some of the most devoted people on the planet. The word “fan” after all derives from “fanatic”, and if any group could be described as fanatical in their devotion to a fictional property, it’s the devotees of comic book lore. Shane Black yanks the rug out from under them, and some of them are very upset about it. There are no alien rings of power, no grand maniacal scheme worthy of Ming the Merciless, no throwdown mano-a-mano between Stark and this iteration of the Mandarin; there’s the reveal, a total transformation in Kingsley’s performance, and the realization that Killian’s been the mastermind all along.

For my part? I love it.

Not only is it a bold move on Black’s part in the face of the fandom, it shows rather than tells us about Killian’s intellect and ability to plan ahead. It elegantly solves the problem of taking what could be a rather offensive character to some and putting it on a movie screen. It allows Sir Ben Kingsley to show off a bit in his acting both as the malevolent terrorist and the Z-list actor. And it demonstrates that the people behind these adaptations are not afraid to make radical changes if it means good storytelling.

That’s what I think ruffles my feathers about the dust-up. As I said, I’m something of a newcomer to Iron Man’s fanbase, but I can understand how attached people become to iconic characters from the past. Hell, part of the reason I bristled at The Amazing Spider-Man is that Andrew Garfield didn’t quite have the aw-shucks boy-next-door charm Tobey Maquire had, at least in the first Sam Raimi movie. A lot of people still can’t get over how Bane was portrayed in The Dark Knight Rises. I may never forgive Bret Ratner for what he did to the X-Men. So on and so forth. In the case of Bane, however, and now the Mandarin, the changes that were made were overall a good move. It made for a better story. It got people talking. It made sense both within its own universe and as a narrative decision. And, at the end of the day, more people paid to be entertained by this tale of a rich mechanical genius going up against genetically modified fire-breathing human bombs.

For my part, I think the movie works. I think this change works. And I would happily see Iron Man 3 again.

Movie Review: Iron Man 3

It would be hard for even the detractors of comic book geekdom to look at The Avengers and not consider it a success story. Years of planning and careful construction of disparate narratives culimated in a single cinematic experience that, to this day, nerds like me have yet to tire of watching. The whole shebang kicked off with Iron Man, which remains the only Marvel movie franchise to have sequels attached to it. The first was the ambitious but somewhat ambling Iron Man 2, and the second opens this year’s blockbuster season, and it’s called Iron Man 3.

Courtesy Marvel Studios

Right from the start, it’s clear that the events of The Avengers have had a lasting impact on Tony Stark, our favorite genius billionaire playboy philanthropist. Not only did he survive fighting alongside gods and super-soldiers, he carried a nuclear missile through a wormhole to annihilate an entire army, if not a civilization. Lacking sleep and suffering anxiety attacks, Tony throws himself into his work, building suit after suit, alienating his friends and even distancing himself from Pepper, who just moved in with him. But before he can be confronted with these issues, a bombing takes place that involves no known bombing techniques and puts his friend, Happy Hogan, in a coma. Tony immediately vows revenge and calls out the man responsible, the international terrorist known only as the Mandarin. Stark even tells the man his home address, because smart as he is, sometimes his ego gets in his way.

The first two Iron Man films were directed by Jon Favreau, the second with a great deal of input (or, more accurately, interference) from Marvel Studios. This time around, the reigns were handed to Shane Black, director of what was arguably Robert Downey Jr.’s best movie before Iron Man, a little noir favorite of mine called Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. The difference shows, in that this film strikes a very different tone from the first two. It simultaneously works on darker themes and moods than the others, and has more humorous and human moments. It’s the noir-flavored atmosphere and focus on character that make Iron Man 3 worth a watch from the very start.

Courtesy Marvel Studios
The Mk. 43 Classy Armor includes a champagne dispenser and built-in jazz soundtrack.

Either by coincidence or design, Iron Man 3 feels somewhat like The Dark Knight Rises, in Tony spends less time in his Iron Man armor than in previous tales, much like Bruce Wayne was Batman less often in his third Nolan film. We get a great deal of time with Tony Stark without his toys, taking him back to a state of working with a box of scraps to get out of his jams. Seeing him with little to rely on but his intellect felt like a return to the fundamentals of his character. At the same time, the floodgates opened by The Avengers means that more outrageous aspects born of the comic books can enter the arena. Tony’s opponents are more super-powered than ever, but thankfully, they’re more than just a guy wearing a suit or controlling drones similar to Stark’s designs. All of the suits are on Stark’s side this time; and I do mean all of them.

The film isn’t without its flaws. First and foremost, the ladies could have been given more to do. Rebecca Hall’s character especially could have easily been fleshed out beyond establishing or developing plot points. I like what they did with Pepper Potts overall, but towards the end of the movie I felt like she could have rescued herself more. A few Shane Black quirks may play on the nerves of some audience members, from the Christmas setting to the juxtaposition of its more noir-ish elements with the comic book stuff. And then there’s the stuff that will REALLY piss people off – which I will discuss in tomorrow’s post.

Courtesy Marvel Studios
Well-shot, earnest, and powerful scenes. A well-constructed film all around.

Stuff I Liked: Who doesn’t like all of the armor shenanigans? Happy’s bits are worth a laugh. I like the callbacks to previous films throughout the story – it makes everything feel more connected and coherent. JARVIS continues to be great, and the kid didn’t annoy me.
Stuff I Didn’t Like: I’m glad the film ended the way it did – Tony having all of that armor at his disposal would make future encounters way too easy.
Stuff I Loved: Tony’s character has grown, and it really shows in places. I love that he and Pepper still have their chemistry. The improvised fighting Tony has to do in the second act really pleased me, I’m glad Pepper got in on the action, I enjoyed every scene with Rhodey, and Ben Kingsley just killed it. Guy Pearce felt completely transformative, which was quite appropriate.

Bottom Line: Between its earnest character building and the variable nature of the threat and villainy, I’m going to say I liked Iron Man 3 more than its predecessor. It’s not quite as good as the first film featuring Tony Stark, but it comes close at times. I have the feeling I’m going to like it more on repeated viewings, and I definitely intend to buy this one for that purpose. It has snappy dialog, well-shot action, inventive storytelling turns, and it’s full of actors I like – Iron Man 3 is a winner.

Fine Villainy, Like Fine Wine

Don’t let the previous weeks of writerly pontification on heroes fool you.

I love a good villain.

Courtesy Marvel Studios

I’ve discussed in the past how even the shittiest human beings we love to hate are still human beings. But the ones I love to hate are not my favorite villains. Like a hero’s growth, a villain’s gains (and their tantrums) have to be earned. And often, to earn these things, the villain has to earn at least some measure of our sympathy and understanding.

The most effective ones do so through charm and guile. You might even know they’re the villain at first. They may come across as a confidant, or even begin the tale as a trusted friend. If they begin in this way, and maintain what makes them sympathetic to both the hero and the reader, they grow much more effective. They draw us in, make us interested in what’s to come, and their betrayals and extreme measures cut even more deeply.

Expected or no, many great villains are best described as “masterminds”. They do not always take the direct approach to achieve their goals. They set their plans in motion carefully, sometimes before the story even begins. Their plans may not always have noble roots, but they often make logical sense, at least to them. They take steps carefully, following meticulous outlines, and trying to anticipate any moves a would-be hero would make. These things take time, and the best villanous plans only get better as they go on, like fine wine getting better with age.

Some masterminds let their henchmen do all of the dirty work, but others like to get into the thick of things themselves. Be it due to the belief that henchmen will never get it right, or simply wanting to ensure the plans come to fruition, they are there amongst both their lackeys and the innocent, overseeing the goings-on, sowing a little discord, perhaps trying to woo the heroes’ loved ones over to their side. This is where we can draw true distinctions between villainous archetypes, the true multi-faceted schemers from the more single-minded but occasionally far more frightening demagogues.

Courtesy Warner Bros

There are some who would accuse stories based on comic books of being simplistic, simple-minded, or even outright dumb. In same cases, I would be hard-pressed to argue. But lately, more than a few of these stories have given us villains in the mold I’ve discussed. While my initial impression of him was less than favorable, the Marvel movies’ take on Loki has really grown on me. Repeated viewings of Thor reveal one of the multi-faceted schemers I was talking about. Even when his true nature becomes apparent, he doesn’t necessarily fly off the handle as some megalomaniacs might. His move against Asgard in general and Odin in particular is calculated; he only truly loses his cool when he makes the dumb decision of sending the Destroyer after his brother. But that’s a discussion for another time. Suffice it to say, The Avengers definitely makes Loki a better villain and even improves his previous showing, and I can’t wait to see him in Thor: The Dark World.

As much as I still believe Bane is, as I’ve said, “Darth Vader without the pathos,” he is still an extremely effective villain in his own right. True, the scheme he’s executing in The Dark Knight Rises is not of his own making; yes, the reveal at the end undercuts a portion of his ideology. He was still presented and portrayed in a way that made him both memorable and fascinating. It’s been pointed out to me that Bane is a very deliberate and implacable sort of character. The gait of his steady walk, that little bit of swagger, the stare from behind his arcane mask – all of this adds up to someone you do NOT want to see walking towards you. What I like most about Bane is how effectively and systematically he tears down both our hero and the city that hero serves, bearing out the observations made by the Joker. In a way, Nolan’s Batman films are all about fear. Scarecrow exploited fear; the Joker created fear all his own; Bane is pretty much the personification of it. Take another look at the scene where Bane confronts Daggit, the corporate sleaze who thought to use Bane to take over Wayne Enterprises. Watch the expression on Daggit’s face when Bane lays his hand gently on the douchebag’s shoulder, and simply says, “Do you feel in charge?”

Villainy like this excites me. I love seeing the bad guys work with intelligence and guile, executing plans that, from their perspective, make sense. It makes the hero work harder, stumble, maybe even fall. This causes an even more rewarding apotheosis, because in most cases, a hero’s fall is followed by their rise from the ashes. And the best villains cause the greatest of falls. The hero and their struggles may be the meat and potatoes of your story, but if you want to get the most out of it, pair that hero with a fine villain the way you’d pair that meal with a fine wine.

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